Why Hobbes would have enjoyed "You've Been Framed"by Ian Silvera / December 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Christmas and comedy have a well-established relationship. Morecambe and Wise re-runs, naughty cracker jokes, an endless stream of comedy DVD adverts. The relationship between comedy and philosophy is less well known.
But comedy has occasionally drawn inspiration from philosophy. Reaching into the archive, there’s Monty Python of course and Beyond the Fringe, and more recently The Simpsons and Ricky Gervais (UCL philosophy graduate, class of 1983) have explored explicitly philosophical issues.
But these examples are one-sided: comedians commenting on philosophy. What about the other way around? What do philosophers say about comedy?
Philosophers, being a disputatious bunch, have three competing theories of humour and laughter. The first, the so-called “superiority theory,” argues that our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people. Thomas Hobbes was the leading proponent of this model. He believed that “The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves.”
Hobbes, if he were around today, would point to YouTube to prove his point. He would probably be a fan of the “fail” series of clips, which have racked up millions of views with their scenes of people falling flat on their face.
In 1709, Lord Shaftesbury introduced a new way of thinking about comedy. His “relief theory,” described humour as a tension-release mechanism. In the stone-faced prose of An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour, Shaftesbury muses: “The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find out other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint.”
The relief theory gained more credibility in the 20th century when Sigmund Freud investigated its claims. Freud believed laughter releases so-called “nervous energy” that is summoned for a psychological task, but then becomes redundant when the task is abandoned. He introduced three situations to help explain his theory: joking, “the comic” and humour.
Freud’s theory, however, has been criticised because he presents no observational evidence to back his claims and his distinction between the three types of laughter— joking, comic and humour—seems synthetic.
Our final philosophical theory of comedy, the incongruity theory, states that comedy and humour are phenomena that “violate our mental patterns and expectations.” Immanuel Kant, among others, maintained this view. He said: “[Our] expectations are strained and then are suddenly dissipated into nothing.”
Consider stand-up comedy. Here are a couple of gags from the Canadian comedian Stewart Francis: “We have a beautiful little girl named after my mum…in fact, passive-aggressive-psycho turns 10 tomorrow,” and “I quit my job at the helium factory…I refuse to be spoken to in that tone.” All the pay-offs rely on Francis’s change of direction.
So which theory is correct? The incongruity theory of humour captures my experience. But if you can’t decide, maybe it’s best just to kick back on the sofa and watch some comedy, with a book of Kant in one hand and a glass of mulled wine in the other.